Part 5 of our weeklong college basketball preview.
In Upstate New York, losing is a way of life. Skies are leaden, winters are endless, and the region’s industrial future hinges on hydrofracking,1 a process in which millions of gallons of toxin-laced water are pumped into shale formations to release natural gas. While the rest of the nation spent the past few years sinking into an economic tar pit, Upstate was already mired in an existence in which fleeting joys are limited to gorging on Trash Plates2 and playing scratch-off lottery games in the shadows of abandoned factories. As a native of Rochester, a grimy husk of a city that squats equidistant between Buffalo and Syracuse, I say these hurtful things with affection. Figuratively, it’s the amount of love one could transport in the cap of an acorn with room to spare — but there’s love here nonetheless.
We Upstate yokels are accustomed to disappointment in the world of athletics. The Buffalo Bills went to four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991 to 1994 and returned the loser each time. Our red, white, and blue Zubaz sweatpants were like Purple Heart medals, badges for injuries incurred during patriotic service. With this sad sports history, we assume any fragile optimism will be torn apart like a butterfly in the jaws of a hound.
Our region’s other powerhouse, the Syracuse Orangemen, often left us crestfallen, as well. When they made the Final Four in the 1987 NCAA tournament, we celebrated on my block by smashing oranges on the sidewalk and chucking the ruptured pulp at our own houses. It was an uncertain and unfortunate metaphor. That team suffered a painful defeat when Derrick Coleman bricked a late free throw and Indiana’s Keith Smart buried a game-winning baseline runner with five seconds remaining. In the 1991 tournament, Syracuse was upset by the Richmond Spiders, and became the first no. 2 seed to perish in the first round. And in 1996, the Orange lost in the NCAA final to Kentucky. But then everything changed.
On April 7, 2003, the Syracuse Orangemen won the national title. In their stirring march to immortality, Carmelo Anthony, the finest collegiate player in the land, dominated the NCAA tournament with effortlessness that was simultaneously precocious and strikingly composed. Coach Jim Boeheim, who had never garnered the wreaths of reverence given to his peers like Roy Williams or Lute Olson, was a champion for the only time in his 35-year tenure at Syracuse. And most important, the victory exorcised the phantoms that hung in the Upstate air like Scott Norwood’s errant field goal attempt. Not all of our hopes were destined to be smashed on the sidewalk or booted wide right. We were not, as it happily turned out, Cleveland. So entering what could be the final season in which the Big East will exist in recognizable form, we can now boast this with the husky bark of a Schenectady used-tire salesman: Syracuse has a reasonable chance at winning the chip. Again.
Last season, the Orange went 27-8 in a season initially dedicated to grooming a collection of talented youngsters. Even as they flamed out disappointingly in both the Big East and NCAA tournaments, the team spent most of the year making fans forget that they weren’t really supposed to be any good at all. Now, with four starters and nine of their 10 leading scorers returning, the Orange are constructed as a contender should be. They are not reliant on a single transcendent talent slumming in his pre-NBA pit stop, nor the collective socialist efforts of a flock of unremarkable seniors. Instead, they are a model of interconnectivity.
The Orange have three key contributors who have played together for three years, enduring slugfests, triumphs, and defeats. There is a cast of seasoned sophomores who logged time in meaningful games and are ready to assume the mantle of real responsibility. And there are the freshmen, a group regarded as the 11th-best recruiting class in the nation, that give the team obscene depth and the potential for true greatness. Unlike Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina, Syracuse lacks a repulsively privileged fan base, a sleazy coach, or a tiresome reputation as a cradle for virtuous manhood. And best of all, these Orange, like the stoic citizens of Upstate New York, are no longer freighted with the baggage of history or failure.
Syracuse’s championship aspirations rest primarily on Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, and Brandon Triche, a trio of veteran playmakers simultaneously poised for standout seasons. This will be the fifth year on campus for Jardine, a skilled combo guard with the East Coast brashness that necessitates a collegiate career at Syracuse, St. John’s, Pittsburgh, or Villanova (barring a legal adoption by John Chaney at Temple). He’s a player capable of creating a spark when the Orange’s offense slips into sodden stagnation, but he’s also an arsonist who can engulf the entire building in the hellfire of mayhem. An adequate 36 percent shooter from deep, Jardine nevertheless regards any successful trifecta as a sign from the basketball oracles that his moment as an omnipotent Sun God has arrived. He’ll squander the team’s next three possessions, hoisting up long-range prayers and committing acts so sinful that Boeheim will twitch like a Pentecostal snake-handler. Or maybe Jardine’s faith is rooted in cold, boring mathematics: He just understands that cranking out two misses gets him closer to another swish. Either way, the good news for the Orange is that they will not live or die by his fickle hand this season.
The team’s other veterans are valuable but less knowable commodities. Triche, who joins Jardine in the backcourt, is a junior who will unexpectedly attempt to violently dunk on the other team’s center or dump in four 3-pointers in a 10-minute span. Other times he mills around. Going into last season, Joseph, now a senior, appeared ready to make the leap from being an athletic forward you mistook for Wesley Johnson when watching TV from the kitchen to a late lottery pick. Despite averaging more than 14 points and adding a respectable perimeter game, his ascension to Orange immortality was hampered by a chronically janky knee. Now healthy, Joseph has an opportunity to join Drake and the Weeknd in a forthcoming think piece in “The Walrus” about three intrepid young men who are redefining Canadian urban identity on American soil. The depth chart for guards and wing positions is fleshed out by an array of shooters and scorers, the most alluring of which is freshman Michael Carter-Williams, a lanky, baby-faced guard who devours passing lanes and regurgitates them as dunks in your grill piece. His skill set suggests Jalen Rose, but with less of a snarl.
The lone departure from the starting lineup leaves a sizable, pear-shaped void in the pivot. Rick Jackson, an earthbound creature who allowed others to glide airborne around him, was a bulwark who somehow led the Big East in rebounds and blocks without ever being particularly imposing. One compelling option for replacing Jackson is Fab Melo, the prize recruit from last season. His freshman campaign was an exercise in humiliation in which basketball’s most delicious name was wasted on silly fouls and overestimation of his own abilities. He’s since shed girdles of blubber and overconfidence, and even demonstrated inklings of competency during games against DePaul and St. John’s at the tail of last season. Also working to Melo’s advantage is his Brazilian heritage, which means that an oddly enchanting quirk will emerge in his game — like Leandro Barbosa’s duplicity, Anderson Varejao’s cartoonish hustle, or Nene’s glorious shit-eating grin. Still, the Orange will likely begin the season starting another imported big man, Baye Moussa Keita from Senegal, who suffered from a hand injury last season. The wild card is freshman Rakeem Christmas, a 6-foot-9 forward from Pennsylvania who was universally rated as one of the finest big-man prospects in the nation. Headlines about “Christmas Gift-Wraps a Victory for the Orange” or “Bad Santa” ink themselves.
What gives Syracuse an advantage over other title contenders is an ability to shape-shift. Boeheim, by choice or necessity, has often resorted to using a shortened, seven-man rotation; this season’s team goes nine deep, with an arsenal of destructive tools to wage war on any type of army. They can carpet-bomb zone-playing opponents with outside shooting. They can trade bayonet thrusts with foes who choose trench combat. They have the mobility and speed to outflank insurgents hoping to cause havoc with full-court terrorism. If you are a follower of Duke, Kentucky, UConn, or Ohio State, you should hate their freedoms.
This season, the minds at Grantland have beckoned me aboard to cover the Big East with unapologetic bias and tearful romanticism. Together, we’ll unspool the frayed strings of Lou Carnesecca’s handsome sweaters and analyze Patrick Ewing’s blotted sweat stains like Rorschach tests. Without further introduction, I’ll begin rhapsodizing. More than any other conference, the Big East is associated with a specific orthodoxy. This style of play has the elegance of a hatchet fight on public transportation: suffocating defense, high-elbowed rebounding, maiming fouls. Distinctly blue-collar in spirit, Big East basketball is best discussed by fat men in rumpled suits who gnaw cigars and speak as if hiding golf balls in their mouths. Remember, this is the conference that, in 1989, instigated more physicality by instituting an ill-fated rule change granting players an additional sixth foul.
The brutal state of Big East basketball was most distilled before the expansion that brought teams such as Louisville and Marquette into the conference. During the ’90s, Georgetown, an exclusive Catholic school, was so defined by coach John Thompson’s bruising teams — who won by equal parts attrition and intimidation — that it almost possessed the proto-militant cachet of a historically black university. They even had piping with African print on their uniforms, a cultural feint that could be countered only by giving Grambling State the logo of a mayonnaise jar jamming out to Hank Williams Jr. Further west, at Pitt, the basketball team probably moonlighted as steel workers. Even programs such as Seton Hall and Providence were dangerous.
Of all the teams in the Big East goon squad, Syracuse has usually been the pretty boy. The Orange have emphasized an up-tempo pace that rewards polished, versatile scorers like Lawrence Moten and Carmelo, and protects gunners like Gerry McNamara and Eric Devendorf from being victimized on the defensive end. Slow, ugly, lane-clogging basketball is the refuge of teams gambling that sweaty grunts can overachieve against more skilled opposition, and Syracuse has always behaved, accurately or not, as if its team held the high cards. Now, with an influx of supreme talent, the program’s philosophical bent and roster are in synchronicity. Boeheim’s beloved 2-3 zone defense, once maligned as the reason the program’s spawn struggled on the professional level, is a feared weapon when stocked with agile defenders who shrink the court down to the size of a sandbox.
Syracuse has joined the category of programs — like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and UConn — that woos top players from anywhere. The cocktail of nationally televised games, home-court advantage in the massive Carrier Dome, and the afterglow of the NCAA title with Carmelo is intoxicating. But the school has often tilled the hard earth of Upstate New York for gems such as Roosevelt Bowie, John Wallace, Jonny Flynn, and Andy Rautins. Triche is from Jamesville, and his uncle, Howard Triche, played for the Orange. Most telling, Boeheim, the grand architect of the operation, is from Lyons, a town of 6,000 that sits on the banks of the Erie Canal. Upstate is not known as a stronghold for basketball, but it should be mentioned that the area was once home to three NBA franchises: the Buffalo Braves, Rochester Royals, and Syracuse Nationals. They went on to become, respectively, the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings, and Philadelphia 76ers. It’s difficult to know if this mass exodus left Upstate better or worse off.
Growing up in Rochester, one did not encounter many celebrities. But for a kid obsessed with hoops, running into local ballers from the Orangemen provided memorable moments. In high school, I was the rare Gentile who played for the Jewish Community Center basketball team in a Christian Youth Organization league. We were called the Maccabis, after a rebel army that, according to Wikipedia, “destroyed pagan altars in the villages, circumcised boys, and forced Jews into outlawry.” Had I known about their roughhouse tactics, I might have embraced the name more enthusiastically (other than the forcible foreskin-snipping element). Sometimes, while we were shooting around in the gym, former Syracuse players like Greg Monroe or Tony Scott would make brief appearances, blessing us with their top-notch pedigrees and height. After one of our weekly practices — these involved three-man weave drills and scrimmages stalled by yarmulkes fluttering off — I was approached by an older man who, despite the caving effects of age, remained substantial in carriage. It was Dolph Schayes, the greatest Jewish player in history and an NBA Hall of Famer who starred for the Syracuse Nationals. He asked me if I was interested in traveling overseas to represent my community at the Maccabi Games in Israel. I was awestruck by the offer, and eagerly agreed. A few minutes later, after conferring with one of the coaches about his scouting mission, my dirty secret was revealed. Schayes, with a tinge of sadness in his gravelly voice, politely informed me that I had failed the religious requirement.
But the real hometown hero was John Wallace. The greatest basketball talent Rochester ever produced, his closest generational competition was Art Long, the hulking center who made headlines for punching a police horse while playing for Cincinnati and palling around with Danny Fortson. After Wallace’s exceptional four years at Syracuse — which culminated with several moments of unbelievable swag during the 1996 tournament — I cawed with derision when Boston selected Antoine Walker ahead of him in the draft. He eventually fell to New York with the 18th pick. And when he failed to crack the Knicks’ rotation and was shipped off to the Raptors, I grimaced when Cam’ron spat, “Make you leave New York faster than John Wallace” on “R.I.T.Z.,” a record with Charli Baltimore. A year later, I ran into Wallace at a sports bar in Rochester. Our respective groups of friends ended up at adjoining tables, and he taunted me mercilessly for being an Eagles fan. Then he climbed into a black SUV with his cronies and pulled off playing Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind.” It was a brush with Upstate royalty.
For people who have grown up bathing in the arterial spray of bloody Big East rivalries, the end of this era is painful. As Rick Pitino recently groused, Syracuse facing off against Clemson conjures none of the towering anticipation of a clash between the Orange and the Hoyas. There is no escaping this reality. There will be no replacement for the pride and satisfaction we experienced when teams from the Big East administered mean-spirited bludgeonings of Tastykake-soft pretenders from the ACC and Pac-10 every March. But all things must come to an end. And the sweetest conclusion, as far as the Upstate contingency is concerned, will be embarking on a fresh start as a winner.
Ben Detrick has contributed to the New York Times, Village Voice, and Northeastern Dogfighting Quarterly. He lives in New York City and will spend this fall weaning himself off boat shoes. Follow him on Twitter at @bdetrick.